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It made sense when I saw conservative commentator George Will’s name at the end of the title sequence: Over some footage of groundskeepers tending the Sacred Diamond, dusting lines of white chalk over red-brown sand, a little boy recites homespun bromides about America’s pastime.
“Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona,” he says, before a montage of highlights from the last few seasons of baseball and golden-hour, “morning in America” shots of little kids warming up for Little League.
It’s a striking first impression. Where MLB The Show 2017 opened on a stirring (albeit cliched) journey through baseball history and collective memory leading to the end of a century-long baseball curse, the 2018 edition begins with a paean to childhood and escape.
Yet the stakes involving that outside world are there, even as The Show 18 conjures the fantasy of turning away from them. There are the Houston Astros winning the World Series, three months after a hurricane inundated a city synonymous with the petroleum industry. There is Puerto Rico’s Javier Baez making a tag a second while waving an admonishing finger, his home island a victim both of that same ghastly hurricane season and federal indifference.
It’s just an intro sequence, of course. But then again, it’s often these extra touches that say the most about how a game is meant to be received, and by whom. They are meant both to evoke the spirit of the thing thing being simulated and then also to justify the limits of the simulation. So where the 2017 edition of the game opened with a trip through history, 2018 opens with an unsuccessful attempt to escape from it into the memory of an innocent childhood—in an ideal America—that has always been hypnotic to the kind of nostalgic newspaper columnists and bowtie conservatives whose words are placed in a child’s mouth for that intro.
Of course, when I turned off The Show, I was greeted by news about school-shooting survivors leading a nationwide march, and the growing rage directed at them from the political right. On Opening Day this week, Baez’s Cubs teammate Anthony Rizzo knocked a home run out of right field against the Miami Marlins; both teams were wearing MSD ribbons for Rizzo’s high school alma mater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The diamond is in the world, not apart from it.
Yet baseball does exist inside of a moat of rules and statistics that makes it feel as if it can offer a refuge from complexity and chance. And that is the circumscribed reality to which The Show is so faithful. That faith and attention to minutiae and ritual are what make The Show 18 a far more inspiring tribute to the game than any saccharine intro.
While it may not be the ode to sabermetrics and trade-construction that has made the Out of the Park series the definitive simulation of pro baseball (and if your primary interest lies in team-building and franchise management, that’s still where you should go), there are few sports video games that capture the feel of playing their sport like The Show, and that continues to be the case in The Show 18. It is a game that effortlessly creates the kind of unexpected, revelatory moments that cause so many baseball fans to wax poetic about the sport.
Sometimes they come out of nowhere. The other day I was leading the Cubs against the hated Brewers. I held a narrow lead at the top of the fifth inning, with José Quintana on the mound, one man out, and the tying run on first. Quintana was fading fast, but he’d run into trouble so quickly that I didn’t have time to get his reliever warmed up. Quintana needed to survive one more batter: Lorenzo Cain.
Every pitcher has a repertoire of pitches. A pitcher feels less confident with their weaker pitches, and while that confidence fluctuates during a game depending on how things are going, in general they start trusting their weaker pitches less as they expend both mental and physical effort. You can still call for the sinker… but the empty confidence meter next to that pitch raises strong questions about whether you should.
As Cain settled into the batter’s box, Quintana felt good about exactly one pitch: his fastball… which he was too tired to throw. If I sent that slow-moving softball pitch over the zone, Cain could send it straight out of Miller Park. But trying to “paint the corners” of the strike zone with Quintana’s uninspiring off-speed pitches resulted in two back-to-back balls. With Cain looking like he was going to get walked, I tossed a fastball high across the zone which Cain let blow past him, and then a sinker that got him to go around with a swing-and-a-miss. The count was even. I just needed one more strike and Cain was gone… and that’s when things started to get amazing.
Both sides of the pitcher-batter interface are incredibly intense. From the batter’s POV, a good curveball can just disappear on you, dropping like a stone just as you start to swing for it. Or a fastball you weren’t expecting is across the plate before you even have a chance to start tracking it. The feeling of laying off a pitch just outside the strike zone is in many ways more satisfying than getting a hit, because the former takes real discipline and judgment to let the pitch reveal itself to you, to not get baited by that long heartbeat where it seems to be headed straight across the plate.
Meanwhile, the pitching side of the equation is about trying to get the batter to pull the trigger in situations where you’re in the least danger. You pray for a swing on an off-speed pitch that won’t be easy to hit well, or that they’ll chase a tasty-looking fastball served just outside their reach.
In retrospect, I could have just walked Cain and brought on the reliever. Or, after the five or six pitches that brought the count to 3 balls and 2 strikes, I could have brought out a new pitcher to finish the at-bat. But for some reason, I wanted Quintana to get this guy. I wanted to get this guy. So I started putting balls over the plate and daring Cain to swing on them. And he obliged, defending that strike zone like Thermopylae, sending one foul ball after another down the baselines.
After ten pitches I started to laugh, because now I was starting to have problems in addition to Quintana: it was getting too tense to hit the right timing on the pitch meter. I was taking longer breaks between pitches trying to relax and find the right rhythm. If your pitcher is at full strength and confidence, the timing on the pitch meter is both more forgiving and mistakes result in less severe deviations from the targeted area. If that pitcher’s arm is about to fall off and he’s on the mound contemplating both his mortality and every bad pitch he’s ever thrown, the timing is harder and the inevitable miscues result in extremely unpredictable throws. It’s how MLB The Show gets at both the physical and mental nature of the game, which is something a lot of sports games struggle to portray.
One of my favorite baseball movies of all time, For Love of the Game, basically takes place inside a pitcher’s head during a long game of baseball. He’s playing what might be a meaningless game at the end of a great career that’s dying with a whimper, and in between pitches and in between innings he’s just thinking about how the hell his life led to this point, and whether there’s anything to look forward to after he hangs up his cleats. There’s a lot of melodrama in the picture, but it also the rare sports movie that really interrogates meaning: Most of the time there is no “Big Game”, no championship, no ring. Yet sometimes it still feels like the whole world collapses down to a single moment in a single game, for no good reason other than the feeling that this time matters more than all the others. A million rituals and repetitive actions suddenly stop being routine because, for whatever reason, they now have real stakes.
Thirteen pitches: Cain was fouling everything. Every crap pitch Quintana heaved down the sixty feet to home plate, Cain managed to catch. Even bad ones that were going to end up between the catcher’s ankles, Cain’s bat would arc down like he was playing cricket and sweep that ball out of the dust and into foul territory.
Boom-boom-boom-boom. Now the crowd and the PA system was into it. From the speakers came the sound of 40,000 people stamping their feet between pitches, their voices rising to a roar. I was nervous. None of this mattered even in the context of my fictional Cubs’ season, but it mattered to me.
Fourteen and fifteen: A good pitch and a bad one, both sent foul as this at-bat crept further outside the bounds of MLB probabilities. Only something like 30 or 40 at-bats each season go past twelve pitches, an absurdly low percentage when you think of all the thousands of games played and the tens of thousands of at-bats that take place. With every additional pitch, we were moving away from “extremely rare” to “this basically never happens”. I know this because later I looked up stats on the length of at-bats in Major League Baseball, wondering if this encounter was a sign that The Show 18 was broken in some way.
My partner was watching me from across the room. “I can’t tell if you’re angry or enjoying yourself,” she remarked, providing a lucid observation from the land known as Reality, where I’d lived until a few minutes earlier.
“I need to get this guy,” I said.
“Ah,” she said. “Sports mode.”
Sports mode. It’s that hyper-vigilant, delicious agony I feel when watching Chicago sports teams in playoff games. It’s that feeling of desperate hope that maybe we can win this and redeem all the bad years and bad memories, weighed-down by the knowledge that somehow, in some way, we / they are going to fuck this up and lapse back into the complacent mediocrity that’s defined all the years in the absence of Payton or Urlacher, of Jordan and Pippen, of Toews and Keith, of Wood or Arrieta. And here it was again, in my living room on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Sixteen: A sickening crack of the bat as the ball blasted skywards down the left field baseline, headed for the stands… over the foul line. A home run avoided by just a few feet.
Seventeen: fouled behind the plate. This single at-bat had become equivalent of an inning and now I was tired, a dull ache forming between my shoulders from tension and the ergonomic nightmare of a position I’d contorted myself into.
My eighteenth and final pitch was basically a surrender. Quintana had nothing in him except aiming the ball at the center of the strike zone and giving it everything he had. It drifted high into perfect home-run territory as Cain tried to unload on the pitch... and ended up hacking at it.
The ball arced into the dirt between second and first, where Javier Baez rescued Quintana by trapping it against his chest and then side-arming it to first for the out. Quintana was hustled from the mound as a surprisingly robust and cheerful Joe Maddon ushered him back to the dugout and signaled for the bullpen.
So what did it matter? My Cubs lost four innings later by a single run, after their closer (also me) gave up a double with a man on second. We won the next few games but not a single one of those wins meant anything compared to the outcome of that stand by Quintana at the end of his outing.
And really, it was all virtual teams and players anyway. This wasn’t Wrigley Field or Miller Park. I was just hanging out in my house playing a video game, joyfully pouring all my attention and effort into it and feeling like somehow even if it didn’t matter, it mattered a great deal.
It’s alluring to escape into that world. To be transported to a place where you can completely invest yourself but still be safe, where there aren’t really consequences outside of a passing feeling of triumph or the bittersweet feeling of loss.
The Show games let us do that better than just about any other sports game I’ve ever played, perhaps because the simplicity of baseball lends itself to convincing simulation in a way that football or soccer do not. With the exception of the often canned-sounding commentary (I found myself badly missing Harold Reynolds’ conversational, natural delivery) and the unnaturally lush colors, MLB The Show 18 looks, sounds, and plays like you’re both watching the game at home and taking part in it from the field.
But in its way, even The Show 18 doesn’t really think you can break the world into discrete chunks. If you play the Road to the Show mode, where you guide a single player from minor league obscurity to baseball glory, you’ll find that the skill progression system has been overhauled. No longer do you earn buckets of skill points that you can freely spend on different playing attributes, crafting an improbably multi-talented avatar. Instead, you have to pick an archetype that caps what is achievable across your different attributes. If you’re a great slugger, you’re probably never going to be more than a competent fielder or baserunner. If you are going to be a master of contact hits that get the ball in play and advance runners, you’re probably not going to be knocking the cover off the ball.
Perhaps more pointedly, those skills are developed by what you do day-to-day. You don’t play a few games, accrue enough points to boost your attributes, and then get back to the playing field as a more capable player. Rather, it is how well you play in each situation that determines whether you made gains or started to atrophy. In MLB The Show 18 you are, more than ever, what you do. And yet you can only do so much.
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Within the artifice of the game’s rules and meticulously analyzed metrics, outcomes are built and and shaped by countless interactions and decisions that add up to inspiring victories, crushing defeats, or dismal collapses. We want to win, but we choose to train, to plan, and to practice. It’s a lesson that sports are meant to teach, which is why children are encouraged to play them. It’s logic that players, coaches, and GMs internalize and study. It’s why a “personal responsibility” nag like George Will finds in baseball an analogy for his life’s philosophy: “Remember that the best hitter in baseball this year will fail 65 percent of the time. So the only way to win consistently is by doing the little things, obeying the little rules of baseball…”
But the lie that Will chooses to tell with that analogy is a revealing one. Nothing that he describes in that long-ago commencement address will help anyone “win” consistently. The most it can do is help them become a slightly more effective hitter, but the history books are full of great hitters for whom the wins came too rarely, who walked off the field with impressive batting averages and on-base percentages but no pennants, and no rings. For all that, you need help. You need teammates, an organization, an infrastructure, resources for all of the above and even then you may still need some luck.
In my story, this great MLB 18 battle that I’ll remember for years, I tried everything I could to “get” Lorenzo Cain… and in the end I didn’t. Not really. The batter didn’t reach first, and that’s recorded as a victory for the pitcher, but in the end it was Javier Baez who saved my ass. I didn’t even have time to react before the AI-controlled second baseman got ahead of Cain’s hit and got it under control off a tricky bounce.
The misty conservatism of Will imagines both baseball and life as games of individual virtues, nurtured and eventually rewarded. Don’t worry about things outside your control, don’t even complain about them, and somehow, when you’re in the clutch, things will work out. It’s little wonder, then, that Will has found himself so dismayed by where his own political team has taken him, and how incapable it’s become of rising to even simplest of ethical challenges.
Sports are an escape only for those who refuse to think beyond them, who find in them a better, different world from our own. I think that’s why so many people look at athletes and wonder if they know how lucky they are, if they feel the gratitude that they should for the fact that they are allowed to play a game that leaves most of us behind in those long-ago childhoods that they remember as far more carefree and far more oblivious than they really are.
“Don’t tell me about the world,” says the little boy at the start of MLB The Show 18, quoting Pete Hamill. “Not today. It's springtime and they're knocking baseballs around fields… and the kids are trying to hit the curve ball.”
On this week’s Opening Day in the spring, a group of black students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, survivors of the school shooting there, held a press conference explaining their reservations about deploying police to protect schools attended by children of color.
Kai Koerber said, “It’s bad enough we have to return with clear backpacks. Should we also return with our hands up?”
The Cubs beat the Marlins 8-4.